Introduction

Ahmed is countering the centralized and politicized nature of Egyptian media he encountered as a journalist by creating a network of youth-led, community-based media outlets that expresses marginalized citizens’ voices and empowers youth to be the spokespeople of their communities in a neutral, decentralized manner.

Ahmed is breaking from the highly centralized, politicized and Cairo-centric mainstream Egyptian media to introduce an alternative community-based media stream to Egypt and the Arab region. Through his organization Bashkatib, an old Ottoman name used in Egypt to denote an enlightened person who serves as a community writer, Ahmed equips networks of youth ages 12-17 in socially, economically, and geographically marginalized areas in Egypt with a comprehensive set of skills and resources  to create, manage and sustain community media outlets. These local outlets, owned and run by youth, produce monthly print publications, distributed free of charge in the local area; and simultaneously publish multi-media content on a larger online network –also called Bashkatib-connecting the different community media outlets around the country with one another. While the local news publications create a space for dialogue on relevant issues within the local communities, the online network offers locally produced reporting on local issues to the general public as well as to professionals working in the Egyptian media. The online network generates inter-community dialogue that breaks stereotypes and polarization resulting from economic, social and cultural differences within Egyptian society. Additionally, the online network acts as a space for dialogue between youth journalists, mobilized by Ahmed, working in different local areas to exchange knowledge, ideas and experience.

At the core of Ahmed’s work is identifying, nourishing and encouraging youth from a young age to assume the role of their communities’ leaders and spokespeople, to communicate people’s daily lives and concerns and strengthen inter-community ties and solidarity. Through the community media outlets, Ahmed aims to create non-political and non-confrontational avenue for young people to raise their voices about issues important to them and their communities and hold government leaders accountable. The training and support Ahmed provides to the youth is cultivating future leaders in the fields of journalism and media who perceive a different role for media as a tool to reflect people’s lives and increase their sense of ownership, empowerment and participation rather than mere consumers of information.

Ahmed is expanding his community media movement to other marginalized areas within Egypt and the Arab region while empowering youth to connect along areas of common interest and across cultural divides.

Egyptian media outlets are highly concentrated in Cairo. The resulting news coverage from mainstream media companies largely focuses on the population of greater Cairo and issues relevant to them. However, over 75% of Egypt’s 88 million people live outside the capital.  These communities that are spread across Egypt with concentrated populations in the Eastern and Western deserts and areas in Upper Egypt, represent diverse ethnic, cultural and social heritage and dialects. Even within Cairo, approximately 40% of the population live in informal housing settlements and are marginalized as well from mainstream media.  Since the marginalized areas in Cairo and general areas outside of Cairo don’t receive much media coverage, a total of approximately 75 milion Egyptian citizens (close to 85% of the population) live in areas in which their local news isn’t showcased in the media. This misrepresentation undermines and ignores the multiplicity of voices, narratives, perspectives and cultures that exist outside of the urban capital, and consequently robs people of a powerful tool that could allow them to monitor local governance, and participate more heavily in public life.

The politicization and polarization of media has become a prevailing trend amongst Egyptian media. The Middle East News Agency (MENA), which operates under the auspices of the Egyptian government, is the media outlets’ main source of news.  MENA reports on events throughout the Middle East, including politics, business, culture and sports. According to Freedom House, Egyptian authorities seek to purge the media of any critical voices and most media outlets increasingly display a strong pro-government bias, with self-censorship contributing to the broader loss of pluralism and diversity of opinion. The lack of a code of ethics and a proper media framework in Egypt means that many of Egypt’s top journalists effectively become spokespeople for the media corporations for whom they work or simply repeat government rhetoric. Instead of a code of ethics that is applied consistently and equally across the country, advertising agencies and businessmen have implemented their own policies, ensuring content is tailored specifically in a way that does not harm any of their interests.

With Internet users in Egypt reaching an estimated 42 million (48.3% of population), an alternative media movement with online elements is emerging in response to the highly-centralized and censored media landscape. There are only two alternative media organizations in Egypt that focus on publishing the local news of communities outside of Cairo, however, they do so through employing fresh university graduates as local reporters. Numerous independent media portals, mostly online, exist in Egypt to offer different narratives and encourage freedom of expression. However, their perspectives and insights are not drawn from the community and are mostly written in the English language to address educated elite. There are no alternative media organizations that focus on either community-owned or youth-led media outlets that are pluralistic and inclusive of all segments of society.  The informal spread of news through social media plays a big role in Egypt; however, the Egyptian government heavily monitors social media activists, aware of their strong influence over their fellow citizens.

Egypt’s young people between the ages of 10 and 19 make up approximately 19% of the country’s population and represent an untapped resource. Youth in marginalized communities have no opportunities to develop, express themselves or participate in public life. Traditionally, community members do not appreciate the potential of youth before they have successfully graduated from university. The absence of self-development and empowerment opportunities for young adults results in low self-esteem, lack of orientation and a loss of youths’ changemaking potential.

Drawing from a decade of experience in Egypt and the Arab region’s media sector, Ahmed began addressing the lack of local, and particularly youth, voice in mainstream media by developing a strategy with three main components: training and supporting youth to develop their own media outlets, enhancing youth leadership roles and the community, and amplifying youth-generated media and connecting youth journalists through an online platform.

Ahmed tested his methodology for training local youth journalists through a 3-month pilot workshop in 2011 with 17 young adults in a marginalized area (Ard-Elewa) in Cairo. The workshop covered the topics of journalism, comics, photography, creative writing and publication-design. Ahmed then asked the youth to use what they learnt to create a publication from scratch where they would express themselves and the views of their small communities. Ahmed was taken aback upon seeing the results – the level of youth interaction, their openness to the idea and feeling of ownership, was inspiring. Without any interference from Ahmed, the youth collaborated together to design the publication, create the content through their own writing and interviews, negotiate with a local internet café that had a designer to design the layout and sell an advertisement space to the local supermarket. They used the money to print the publication itself and distribute it to the people in their community. The youth went back to Ahmed with their product asking him what the next step could be. This was the prototype upon which Ahmed created his idea, Bashkatib, and registered a social venture under the same name.

Ahmed designed a full-fledged program with an educational curriculum that empowers youth ages 12 – 17 through a 2-year intensive, educational and practical, course to launch, manage and sustain local community media outlets, with a focus on socially, economically, and geographically marginalized areas. Ahmed enters every new community through partnership with a local entity, be it a Citizen Sector Organization (CSO), Community Development Association (CDA) or a public library, known for its credibility, outreach to youth and knowledge of the local community’s context. The local entity offers support in understanding the context, reaching out to and selecting youth from the local community as well as space and technology facilities for the program in its first year. Ahmed ensures the selection of a diverse group of youth in terms of age, gender, political affiliations of the youth or their families as well as a varied social and economic background. After identifying potential youth in every community, Ahmed engages them for a period of 2 years.

In the first year, Ahmed starts building the capacities of the youth through a one-month basic training curriculum covering the foundations of journalism, media ethics, photography, creative writing, comics and publication outline. The basic training is followed by 10 months of hands-on exercises for the youth. The youth assume full responsibility for designing a monthly print publication.  Groups of 25 young adults work together in teams in every local community to launch and manage their publication, deciding on everything from the name, the design and the roles, to the monthly content and the distribution plan. Along the way,  the youth collaborate to solve problems creatively, take decisions wisely and communicate effectively. They have the ultimate freedom to decide on what they write and how to present their communities.

In the 2nd year, Ahmed holds peer training sessions where the previously recruited young people transfer their skills to new members and receive an advanced training on investigative journalism, video shooting and editing with a second curriculum that focuses on management topics like: marketing, administration, operations and financial management and communications to be able to assume full responsibility of their community-driven media outlet, professionalize and sustain it. At this point, Ahmed supports the youth through renting out a space in the community to serve as the outlet’s premises, as well as, basic equipment.

Ahmed’s support to the youth-run media outlets during the two-year program include start-up funding, writing challenges that help youth hone their journalism skills and on-going coaching and mentoring.  First, the publication receives funding through Bashkatib for the first year. Additionally, the youth teams are tasked with weekly assignments that feed into Ahmed’s online platform to hone their skills. Finally, a local on-site coordinator from Ahmed’s team mentors and coaches the youth network in each community. These mentors and coaches offer feedback on the content from the point of view of media and journalism ethics and high professional standards. It is Ahmed’s policy that mentors and coaches do not express their affiliations be it political, religious or others to the youth and do not allow one ideology or another to prevail among the youth teams. Eventually, the youth themselves exert peer pressure on each other to abide by professional standards.

In addition to training and support for the youth, Ahmed works to strengthen young people’s position as representatives and leaders in their communities.  The first year of the program is a time for the youth to build trust with members of their community.  By upholding high ethical standards of journalism and sharing media pieces with community contributors, the youth journalists gain credibility as local representatives of the communities. Working with parents is another key element of building an enabling environment for youth.  Being in marginalized environments where the youth’s parents struggle to make ends meet, the parents are always wary of their children getting distracted from education by joining any community activities. Additionally, in some families the youth have to work to support their families and education. To cope with the context and create an enabling environment for the youth to commit to the program, Ahmed gives the youth basic stipends during their training and apprenticeship times, moreover, Ahmed and his team conducts monthly meetings with parents to involve them in their children’s development.

Ahmed’s online portal, Bashkatib, launched in January  2014, serves as a gateway to local news content — reports, profiles, photographs, comics and stories — generated by the community media network. The platform connects the youth and the local community media outlets to each other, to the public and the main stream media. The portal also offers as a space for advertisements as a part of Ahmed’s revenue generation plan to sustain the venture.

Since his launch in 2012, Ahmed has worked with 4 local communities in Giza, Cairo, Mansoura (Northern Egypt) and Aswan (Southern Egypt) engaging 169 female and male youth who launched and continue to run 3 media outlets that have produced 180,000 copies in monthly publications. These outlets produce coverage of local events otherwise ignored by national and regional media outlets that are now starting to grab traditional media’s attention; several pieces of the local youth work have made appearances in mainstream media. Community members now approach the youth themselves to have their stories and complaints displayed in the community’s media outlet having known that it attracts the attention of national media and authorities.  The outlets also strengthen ties between members of the community by opening discussions about local issues and concerns and position youth as important assets to the community. The youth themselves develop a heightened sense of leadership, social and emotional intelligence, critical questioning and changemaking skills; they exhibit higher levels of self-esteem and confidence as well as an attitude of active participation in public life, observing, commenting, reporting and mobilizing people with regards to local events and government actions.

Ahmed’s organization employs 11 people and maintains a network of 16 trainers and coaches. So far, Ahmed has been mobilizing funds for his organization through funding partners like the International Media Support Foundation, Aswatona Fund for Media Development and the Embassy of the Netherlands. He has carried out some fundraising activities that serve the spread of his idea like issuing a magazine featuring highlights of local stories of everyday life in the communities in which he works rounded out with short opinion pieces and creative short stories from his youth contributors. The magazine was sold to the public. Additionally, Ahmed conducts fundraising events that exhibit documentaries, photos and writings created by the youth about their communities.  In the near future, Ahmed plans to generate revenue to re-invest in and sustain his venture through website advertisements as well as collaborating with the youth of his program to offer advertising spaces for the private sector in the local community media outlets through which they can reach marginalized populations with their products. Additionally, partnering with mainstream media companies to share locally produced content as well as partnering with different entities to locally cover national scale events can contribute to the financial sustainability of the community-driven media outlets.

Besides his future plans for financial sustainability, Ahmed plans to geographically expand to 3 new governorates every year, covering Egypt in around 6 years while diversifying the media outputs produced from every local community beyond print publications. Simultaneously, he has identified partners in Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia with whom he will co-create an outline for replicating his model and curriculum. With the establishment of every new media outlet, new voices are added to the online and offline networks, media gets more inclusive and representative of people’s diverse voices and more youth are empowered to assume a leadership role in public life and engage in active dialogues across communities. In addition, the mass of local community production will increase citizens’ awareness and will naturally act as a monitoring force for local governments’ performance.

Ahmed grew up in a marginalized Egyptian neighborhood with few resources. He worked from the age of eight in order to support himself and his family while simultaneously pursuing his education. He worked different kinds of jobs from those requiring hard physical labor to starting his own small businesses to sell products locally. Such experiences exposed Ahmed to diverse segments of society and taught him how to deal with all kinds of people. His mother’s protectiveness and insistence on his education lead him to excel at school and love reading. He would spend his breaks from work in a public library reading about different issues.

When it came to university, Ahmed chose to study journalism having always loved writing and engaging with local communities. To study media in Egypt, students from across the country had to come to Cairo. Ahmed’s university experience exposed him to people from all Egyptian governorates and communities; he observed the frictions and superiority between Cairenes and non-Cairenes as well as the discrimination and stigma between university youth based on the differences in social, cultural and economic standards. Ahmed himself suffered from snap judgments that were tied to his background and made him feel the urgency of breaking inter-societal stereotypes.

 

Having pursued a career in media, Ahmed never found himself or his community represented in the centralized Egyptian media channels, whether radio, TV or print. His graduation project,  a political magazine,  broke with the safe forms of final college projects. With a persistent belief in freedom of expression and the importance of media for an informed and an empowered society, Ahmed later became an Editor of Dustur Al-Shaab (People’s Constitution), an initiative that attempted to strengthen debate on the new Egyptian constitution by supplying people with the information needed to have such a debate and inviting opinion pieces to inspire and provoke discussion. He also co-foundered an online radio station that provides critical non-censored content about social and political life in Egypt.

 

At each stage of his life, Ahmed sought ways to enhance media representation amongst Egyptian local communities leading him to launch a movement that empowers youth with very little resources to be the recognized sources of information and leaders of their communities.